Saturday, June 16, 2012

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a Nigerian illegal immigrant in London. This brooding man drives a taxi by day and works as a porter at a plush hotel in London by night. He supposedly never sleeps and chews on some kind of leaves to keep himself awake. He is a kind man; popular and well-loved amongst fellow immigrants who live a hand-to-mouth existence in the city doing odd jobs as custodians, cleaners, cooks, cabbies. Okwe also helps out his friends and other poor immigrants with their ailments; apparently he has some history working as a doctor in his home country!

Okwe has an arrangement with another illegal immigrant, a shy, Turkish woman named Senay (Audrey Tautou), wherein he uses her couch in her small room to catch a few winks during morning time when she reports to work in the same hotel he works in. He also likes Senay and she likes him but nothing has been said yet. Senay is too reserved and shy and fears the neighbours. She does not want to attract unwanted attention, especially from nosey gossipers! Any wrong move can lead to her deportation; the immigration officials are already harassing her.

A dramatic change of events occurs one day and it sets off a series of episodes that threaten to change the lives of Okwe and Senay forever. A prostitute Juliette (Sophie Okonedo) asks Okwe to check a room she has been in. Okwe inspects the room and finds that the toilet bowl is blocked and overflowing. He is shocked to discover that the cause of the blockage is a human heart stuck in the pipes! The Spanish night manager Senor “Sneaky” Juan (Sergi Lopez) seems to be well aware and tries to bribe Okwe to keep his mouth shut. Okwe gradually discovers that there is something sinister and “dirty” beneath the “pretty” hotel exterior.

“Dirty Pretty Things” is a tale about dreams. It is about those countless immigrants who dream of making a better living in a rich, developed country; of having the kind of life and freedom they could never have in their home countries. It is about how they would give their eye and teeth to have a legal status! Survival is on the knife’s edge as is the case for any illegal immigrant in a big city, who wants to ‘escape’ to paradise. Steven Knight’s screenplay is refreshingly original, barring some minor clichéd characterization and blatant racial stereotyping which prove to be the glitches in an otherwise superb work of writing (It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay). Stephen Frears turns Knight’s script into an intriguing thriller, that’s also a gut-wrenchingly potent drama centered around illegal immigrants in London.

The story is told in a crisp fashion with some beautiful cinematography and commendable shot composition, and the preliminary scenario is established rather quickly but doesn’t seem hurried or forced in any way. It hardly takes any time for the plot to take off which works in the film’s favour. The character of Okwe quickly strikes a chord with the audiences, with most of the first few minutes revolving around him and his deeds. What doesn’t work is how most characters (including Okwe, to some extent) are instantly recognizable as either “good” or “bad” or “kind” or “unkind” and don’t deviate from these traits of theirs! Okwe, for example, is shown to be such an impossibly noble and kind soul that you can’t possibly think he can harm anyone. On the other hand there’s 'Sneaky' Juan, who is like the ultimate personification of 'slimy', staring you in the face! Some lines of dialog including some oozing racial stereotyping are just too blatantly rude to be taken seriously.

And then there are some character clichés like the helpful buddy (Guo, an Asian man who works at the hospital mortuary), the hooker with a heart of gold (Juliette), Senay’s fat and horny old immigrant employer (Barber Ali, a sweatshop foreman) who not-surprisingly asks her for sexual favours in return for not revealing her identity or whereabouts to the hot on the trail immigration officials.. ! Hand it to the filmmaker and the actors though, that despite these clichés, the viewer ultimately ends up rooting for them anyway! Audrey Tautou is in fact miscast as a Turkish woman, and although one really wonders why someone from Turkey would have to go through all the tough ordeals to secure a status for themselves in London, she delivers a kind of performance that you can’t overlook and can’t help but applaud. Senay’s predicament and her dealing with the whole situation is pulled off in a sincere effort by Tautou. Ditto for Sergi Lopez as the crooked hotel manager who has something dirty up his sleeve. The guy is despicable to say the least and portrays his one-dimensional character in an extremely convincing manner.

But the big winner in the performances department is of course, Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Okwe. His character is written in a manner which will surely evoke great empathy. Ejiofor makes the character his own and steals the show from right under everyone’s noses with a fabulous performance and manages to instantly connect with the viewer. He is a helpful, kind, selfless man but you very much know that he has a great sadness about him. It is a brilliant portrayal of a tortured soul; an epitome of self-sacrifice.

It is worthwhile to check out Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things”. While it may not be perfect, it is a fine work of cinema that is gripping as well as emotionally affecting and will keep you hooked ‘til it reaches its bittersweet conclusion.

Score: 8/10.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The War Zone (1999)

Prima facie, “The War Zone” comes across as a misnomer for this brutally disturbing drama directed by Tim Roth. This reviewer thought it is set against the backdrop of a war, but when the film unfolded, the underlying meaning of the title became clearer; the only war this film deals with is a personal war; a war within!

15-year old Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) is the hero of this sad story. His family, consisting of 18 year old sister Jessie (Lara Belmont), Dad (Ray Winstone), and Mum (A bloated Tilda Swinton) have moved to the Devonshire countryside to live on an isolated property, leaving their London city life behind. Tom is bored and feels lonely, clearly misses London. There hardly are neighbours; the area is mostly desolate. Pregnant mum just delivers a baby amidst difficult circumstances (a car accident!) and yet the baby is born healthy. Everyone is slightly injured, but in the end it’s all hunky dory and life goes on. The isolation and modest living conditions have also made these people used to casual nudity around the house. Tom is a curious teen, and he seems to have taken fancy to a neighbouring girl, Lucy (Kate Ashfeld).

The seemingly peaceful environment in the family is disrupted one day when Tom comes face to face with a shattering truth about an incestuous relationship between his Dad and sister…

But haven't we seen so many other films that deal with incest? Maybe so, but what makes "The War Zone" distinct, is in its non-adherence to rendering simplistic treatment to its characters. These characters are complex, they aren't necessarily pigeon-holed to predictable traits. So then, when we witness the dynamics of these characters we are forced to ask ourselves several questions. The dad seems to be a really nice and loving father. Why then, does he develop the sick desire to sexually abuse his own daughter? Is he even aware of what he is doing? Is he aware of the gravity of his heinous act? Or is it rather casual to him; ....perhaps he himself has a history of abuse dating back to his childhood?

And then there's Jessie; she is well aware of the implications of the deeds she is involving herself in. Or is she? Maybe she is going along with it, maybe she is enjoying it. Or perhaps suffering (?) silently, because she is too afraid to bring it out in the open; maybe just too ashamed. And the mother is blissfully unaware of what is happening....will she be able to take it once she realizes?
Which brings us to Tom, who is at the epicenter of this explosive situation. It is actually through his eyes that we see the film. You can't help but yield to a hint somewhere in the middle of the film that there's a curious voyeur inside him who wants to videotape the action. And you wish deep within that it is only to expose the sick act. But it can't be ignored that Tom is a 15 year old teen struggling with his own transition into adulthood. And call it a case of bad timing; fate is playing a cruel joke on the boy by invoking the adult inside this vulnerable teen by bringing him face to face with the most aberrant of sexual acts inside his own home! At a point of time the sister almost hits the nail on the head after a confrontation, "This isn't just about me and dad is it?" further insinuating that actually Tom wants to know about sex and himself wants to experience it!

Tom is thus, a soul torn apart. Maybe he knows the difference between right and wrong but is finding himself succumbing to a perverse temptation, given his unstable transition phase! Jessie tries to put her assumption about Tom to the test in a bizarre episode at her friend Carol's place in London; then again, perhaps her intentions are different altogether! Her eventual action further clouds any hopes the viewer may have about gaining an insight on Jessie's thought process. It is in this unpredictability of the characters that most of the success of this excellent handling of a fine screenplay by Alexander Stuart lies. Tim Roth, a fine actor of our time, proves that he can handle the director's job with an equal finesse. He clearly understands his characters' complexities and his vision of the characters' personae enables him to deliver their perfect transition to the motion picture.

The soul is all there, but what about the body? No complaints there either; Roth captures some of the finest images of the isolated, rain-soaked country side and the rocky seashore. The feeling of desolation is further enhanced by the achingly beautiful score by Simon Boswell. The choice of actors is spot on. Winstone and Swinton are simply great in their respective roles. But special mention must be made of the actors who play the siblings, Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe who had no prior acting experience but emerge winners with their effortless performances.

Do not miss Tim Roth's "The War Zone". It is a disturbing look at something as warped as incest but a patient and an open-minded viewing would ensure that instead of turning your head away in shame, you'll end up thanking yourself for subjecting yourself to this mind-numbing yet rewarding film experience.

Score: 9/10